Honorary, earned, chosen, and biological: The Teach For America community contains all kinds of families.
February 24, 2016
It’s anyone’s guess how many alumni met their significant others in the corps and formed new families. Let’s just say that One Day gets many wedding photos in the mail.
The Teach For America community contains a multitude of family types. Some are biological—siblings, cousins, even parents who follow their kids into the corps. Others form around relationships that grow so tight, they might as well be family. Twenty-five years in, thousands of families—or just-like-families—have roots in Teach For America. Here are four.
1. Tammi Sutton Taught Five Boone Siblings. Two Became Teachers and One, Chevon, is now a Teach For America alum.
Tammi Sutton (E.N.C. '96) arrived in the small town of Gaston, North Carolina, with every intention of leaving for law school after two years in the corps. Nineteen years later, she’s still there, having co-founded the nation’s first rural KIPP school on a former peanut field and educated waves of siblings from multiple families.
No family is more entwined with her life than the Boones, all five of whom she taught, coached, or mentored as they grew. Stancheka, now a 31-year-old associate with Booz Allen Hamilton, was in Tammi’s first class in her placement school, Gaston Middle School. Next came Stancheka’s only brother, Jemal, who later regularly hosted Ms. Sutton’s high school students when they visited his college, Morehouse.
Then came the third child, Chevon; then Ebony, now a senior at Barton College; and finally Shannon, who was born the year Stancheka was one of Tammi’s first students and now attends the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.
Chevon Boone was about to enter fifth grade in 2001, the same summer when Tammi was recruiting her founding class of fifth graders for the new, then unheard-of KIPP Gaston College Prep middle school. Tammi drove all over the countryside recruiting her first class of students, and Chevon often went with her to make the pitch.
At her start-up school, Tammi juggled administrative duties, many teaching responsibilities, and coaching the girls basketball teams. The Boone girls often stayed as late as their principal. Then she would drive them home.
Chevon was afraid to go to the University of Pennsylvania, the college Tammi had in mind for her. But when she was accepted, she felt she had to try. She had Tammi on speed dial her freshman year. On the day Chevon graduated from Penn, Tammi sat with her family, bouncing Stancheka’s first child, Brooke, on her lap.
Chevon (New Jersey '13) taught for two years as a Teach For America corps member in Newark and now teaches 5th grade language arts—the same class Tammi taught to her—in Washington, D.C. Tammi, who now directs the five schools in KIPP’s Eastern North Carolina network, has traveled north to watch Chevon teach.
“I’m not going to put a lot of pressure on Chevon, but I’ve told her for a couple of years now that I wish she was teaching English here” in Eastern North Carolina, Tammi Sutton says. “When my board of directors asks me what’s my long-term succession plan, it’s Chevon. When I envision who should have this job, and who would do it so much better than me? It’s her.”
2. In San Antonio, a Daughter Convinced Her Father to Teach.
The Graham family likes competition. Leila Graham (San Antonio ’10) started teaching elementary school in the San Antonio Independent School District right out of college in 2010. In that first year, “I recruited my father,” she says. Scott had retired as an Air Force chief master sergeant and had always wanted to teach, but he told Leila, “You’ve got to be kidding me. They’re not going to want this old man.”
His daughter the recruiter wouldn’t let him not apply. A year later, Scott Graham (San Antonio ’11) was teaching in San Antonio too, and the father-daughter race was on. “Let the record show that I got my principal’s certification before she did,” Scott says, laughing. “Although she’s done a couple points better than me on every test along the way.”
Leila is now an instructional reading coach for the district, and Scott coaches six schools on behavior management. “In the Air Force, there’s about 5–10 percent of young airmen who are on the bubble, who could be successful or get kicked out based on the decisions they make,” he says. “One of my biggest roles was mentoring those young airmen, and quite frankly, I treat the students exactly like I treated those airmen. Once kids know you care about them and you love them, now you have trust, and they completely understand that you are there looking out for their best interests.”
Leila and Scott get on the phone and talk shop at the end of most school days, and set goals for what’s next. “I go to work happy every day,” Scott says. “But one of the blessings is that it’s a lot of fun to work this closely with my daughter.”
3. In Leland, Mississippi, Mary Boteler Has Rented to and Looked After 80 Corps Members.
Mary Boteler, age 77, has lived in or around the Mississippi Delta town of Leland her whole life and has her hand in most matters. In 2005, she began to rent the old houses she and her husband restore to arriving corps members. This fall, she rented to her eightieth.
“This tradition was well established when I arrived in 2009,” says Kevin Parkinson, who came from Illinois to Leland. “I rented a beautiful three-bedroom house from her with two other corps members. She called us ‘the boys.’ I called her my Delta Mom.
“When we moved in, we told her, ‘Mary, sometimes we like to have parties.’ She and I both love entertaining and we were always sharing tips. ‘Do you have any Tiki torches I can borrow?’ We broke off a doorknob once. She just laughed. The boys!
“Paying my rent would take me at least an hour. Mary would invite me into her house. Her husband, E.L., would offer me a Scotch, and we’d spend time visiting. She was a retired teacher herself, so she’d always ask how my kids were doing and give me counsel and guidance.
“When I couldn’t get home for Thanksgivings, I ate with her family. When I wanted to raise money for a student trip, she gave personally, and then she connected me with everyone in town who could make it happen. ‘Oh come with me, I’ll take you to meet the mayor.’
“When I got married [to Stephanie Pompelia (Mississippi ’08), who like Kevin is a Teach For America - Mississippi staff member], we held a reception in her home and garden. Her garden was in Southern Living magazine! She is the kindest, most hard-working person I've known in my experience with Teach For America. She’s part of the reason I’m still in Mississippi.”
4. Their Days in Houston Made Brooke (Foster) Max and Christina (Jones) Coleman Closer Than Sisters.
Brooke (Foster) Max and Christina (Coleman) Jones met at institute in Houston in 2003 and became inseparable. “We weren’t roommates, but we might as well have been because we spent all our time together,” Christina says. “We bonded over the fact that we were like the same person from two different places. And we were very different from a lot of the other folks we grew up with—these uber-weird math nerds with a thing for geometry, balanced with wanting to help other people.”
Both spent their corps years teaching math in Houston, Christina at Chavez High School and Brooke at E. L. Furr High School. They spent every Saturday at Panera Bread or Chili’s, arriving early and not leaving until both had finished their lesson plans for the week.
In the ten years since Brooke moved to Indiana and Christina to Atlanta—through work, marriage, kids, life—they've seen each other face-to-face sometimes more frequently, sometimes less. But a while ago they committed to being in constant touch.
“We decided we needed each other,” Brooke says, and Christina agrees. “I had spent so much time with Brooke during Teach For America and she knew so much about me that when something really big was happening, she was one of the few people I could call who would understand my perspective.”
Thousands of alumni who formed the deepest friendships of their lives in the crucible of the corps could tell variations on Christina and Brooke’s story. Here are a few moments in the evolution of one closer-than-sisterhood:
Christina began to rise through the ranks of an Atlanta warehousing company while Brooke taught in rural Indiana high schools.
Each year, Christina called in to Brooke’s geometry classes to help with a series of triangle congruence lessons they had trained on in the corps. Christina would say she needed help to make triangle-shaped boxes for customers. “My students were able to call her at her work and give specific recommendations for the job, and she would respond with more work for them to do,” Brooke says.
When Christina was a few years into private sector work, she wanted to make a bigger contribution to education. With Brooke’s encouragement, she joined a nonprofit board focused on civics and reading, and she started volunteer tutoring. “She gave through DonorsChoose to my classroom to get graphing calculators for kids in 2008 or -9 and didn’t even tell me,” Brooke remembers.
When Brooke began to think about pursuing a doctorate degree in math education, Christina encouraged her to get out of her comfort zone, Brooke says, and helped her think through her fellowship application.
About a year ago, they decided to check in daily. “Most of the time, Brooke texts me and says, ‘Hey, you need to leave work now.’ And that’s because I told her I need to find more balance,’” Christina says. “And then we’ll talk. Sometimes it’s about the kids. Brooke told me to download ‘Hello’ by Adele. What’s for dinner. There are things I don’t feel comfortable telling my real family that I feel comfortable talking to Brooke about.’’
They were roommates at Teach For America’s 25th Anniversary Summit. “Are you surprised?” Brooke says.